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NIU students hit the road to broaden their horizons

December 19, 2014
Robert M. Peterson, associate professor and White Lodging Professor of Sales, hands out NIU fleeces to students boarding the #NIUSalesBus.

Robert M. Peterson, associate professor and White Lodging Professor of Sales at NIU, hands out NIU fleeces to students boarding the #NIUSalesBus.


Days 1 and 2 on the #NIUSalesBus

Days 3 and 4 on the #NIUSalesBus


On a blustery December morning, when most of their classmates were experiencing the joys of sleeping late on the first day of Winter Break, 24 students from the NIU College of Business were boarding a bus for a whirlwind week of learning and rubbing elbows with business professionals across the Midwest.

The trip was the brainchild of Chuck Howlett, assistant director of NIU’s highly regarded Professional Sales Program.

“Our corporate partners have been telling us for years that they love our students, but they have a tough time persuading some of them to accept jobs outside of Chicago,” Howlett said.

“So this is our effort to introduce some of our top sales students to other major cities across the Midwest and show them some of the opportunities that they can find there.”

The bus rolled away from NIU’s Barsema Hall at 10 a.m. Monday and will return Friday evening. In between the students will travel to St. Louis, Indianapolis and Merrilville, Ind.

At stops along the way, students will meet with, and receive instruction from, executives and recruiters from rental car giant Enterprise; medical supply maker McKesson; pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly; Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance and White Lodging, parent company of several major hotel chains. At some stops, representatives from the local chamber of commerce also will meet with the NIU students to tell them what their city has to offer, touching upon everything from cultural attractions to the price of rental properties.

The students also will attend a variety of receptions and events, including an evening as the guests in the Enterprise corporate sky box at a St. Louis Blues hockey game.

NIU marketing student Martina McNulty gets an NIU fleece as she boards the #NIUSalesBus for a week-long tour of Midwest business centers.

NIU marketing student Martina McNulty gets an NIU fleece as she boards
the #NIUSalesBus for a week-long tour of Midwest business centers.

While traveling between stops, students will present reports on books they have been assigned to read, and listen to presentations on topics ranging from how to spend their last semester of school preparing for the business world; how to navigate the intimidating world of insurance and retirement plans; and even personal budgeting.

Students are be responsible for a number of short papers, reports and presentations; they also will be graded on things such as how they interact with the business professionals they meet and how appropriately they dress for the events they attend.

That last item, was covered at length in a Dec. 10 class, when representatives from State Farm Insurance visited the class and covered topics such as the difference between “business casual” and “smart casual” and more.

Scott Ziemet, who owns a State Farm Insurance Agency in DeKalb, told students he wished someone had clued him into the importance of appropriate attire while he was a political science major at NIU.

“I interviewed for a position as an intern in the office of Congressman (and future Speaker of the House) Dennis Hastert,” Ziemet said. “I walked in wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.”

For the next hour, Ziemet and Jeff Keicher (who owns a State Farm Agency in Sycamore) and Leslie Anderson, a human resource manager for State Farm, discussed everything from the evils of all-cotton dress shirts to the appropriate length for a business woman’s skirt. Keicher also gave an impromptu 20-minute lesson on the body language of a handshake.

Christian Villalobos

Christian Villalobos

“I see great value in this class,” Keicher said afterward. “It is going to be a ‘differentiator’ for these students, something that gives them that extra edge as they go out into the world looking for that first job. If it had been available when I was a student here it certainly would have spared me a lot of mistakes early in my career.”

The students, mostly seniors, soaked up the information and were eager to apply what they learned.

“I think it will be some great real-world experience,” said Drew Ingle, 20, of Decatur, Ill. “I can’t wait to pick the brains of actual sales professionals. I think I will get as much out of this week as I would a full semester sitting in a class.”

Christian Villalobos, 22, of Chicago, was particularly excited to meet with officials from Enterprise, where she has been interviewing, but as much as anything was looking forward to seeing other cities.

“Other than one trip to New Orleans, I had never really left Chicago until I participated in a sales competition in Indiana this fall. I think it will open my eyes to what else is out there and make me a little more worldly,” she said.

The trip, which is being billed as “NIU Sales on Wheels” will be live-blogged by the students (each of the six teams is expected to provide at least one blog post a day) and chronicled on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and other social media using the hashtag #NIUSalesBus.